The amount of electricity supplied by solar panels continues to grow in the US. Considering this trend, what kind of picture are experts painting for solar output over the next few decades? And what are some potential use cases that will help get us there?

Solar photovoltaics show exponential growth

When the first few megawatts of solar power came online at the turn of the century, the seeds of a clean energy revolution were being planted. With each passing year, solar installations first crept upward, then grew by leaps and bounds. A claim made by the Solar Energy Industries Association puts things in perspective: In 2016, America saw its one-millionth solar PV installation — an accomplishment that was 40 years in the making. But just three years later, an additional million solar power systems were installed.

With all this growth, solar power has taken on national importance in the domestic energy conversation. After accounting for the record-breaking 15 gigawatts of solar generating capacity installed in 2020, the sun now provides 3% of all power in the US, or 80 gigawatts (GW) of AC electricity.

How much will the industry grow?

A report by the US Department of Energy illustrates what may lie ahead for solar depending on the degree to which Congress prioritizes grid decarbonization. If the government commits to a 95% reduction in grid CO2 using 2005 emissions levels as a baseline, solar power can provide as much as 40% of all power by 2035, with wind energy picking up the bulk of the slack.

But even if government policies follow a business-as-usual approach, solar still enjoys enough market-driven momentum for analysts to predict that it will serve 18% of all US power needs by 2035. If technology cost reductions are particularly advanced, solar can claim a 28% share of the US energy mix by 2035. By 2050, we can expect at least a ten-percent uptick for both those figures.

It’s worth noting that over the last ten years, the cost of going solar decreased by 90 percent.

How can 40% solar be achieved?

The federal report states that in each year leading up to 2025, the country should increase solar capacity by 30 GW on average. Subsequent years should see 60 GW of capacity additions. The study’s authors note that achieving this vision will require a minimum investment of $225 billion over the next 30 years.

But perspective is key: this figure is just 0.05% of total US GDP over that same timeframe. More importantly, ROI is estimated to be at least $1 trillion in the form of avoided climate change damages, and $300 billion from air quality improvements.

Harnessing the sun in new places

The forecasted growth of solar power in the US means you may end up seeing this technology crop up in new places. Large buildings, for instance, are great candidates for solar panel installations. Municipal government buildings like libraries, rec centers and even fire stations are prime candidates for investment in renewables, as evidenced by the progress made on this front in places like Montgomery County, Maryland and Fairfax County, Virgina.

Airports can also be great spots to turn sunlight into electricity. Currently, 10,000 solar panels are in place at Pittsburgh International Airport, which is the first completely energy independent airport in the country. Also, a 12.3-megawatt solar plus storage system is in the works at JFK in the form of a carport canopy that will shelter 3,000 vehicles. It will supply power to the airport’s rail system as well as community residents and businesses. Solar installations are also in the cards for Newark and LaGuardia airports. Meanwhile, Kansas City International Airport is eyeing a massive 300-megawatt solar farm that looks to leverage the vast acreage of land surrounding the runways. If completed, it would be one of the largest solar arrays in the country.

If a pilot project in Massachusetts goes well, we may soon see solar panels on long stretches of highway in the US. A half-mile segment of I-95 near Boston will serve as a testbed for the concept of photovoltaics installed along concrete sound barriers. This small installation is expected to generate enough electricity to power around 100 households every year. The idea is already popular in countries like Germany and Australia.

Clearly, creative use of space is key to the widespread expansion of solar. We’ve seen examples of this on land, but what about on water? It’s possible to install solar panels on bodies of water through what is known as “floating solar.” The largest such project in the US is a 7.78-megawatt array floating atop a wastewater treatment basin in Healdsburg, a town in California’s wine country where land use is mainly reserved for vineyards. Floating solar installations come with the added benefit of reducing algae growth and evaporation in a given body of water. Panels also run more efficiently on water thanks to a natural cooling. Floating arrays are a smart choice in areas where land is limited, like the island country of Singapore. The nation is home to a floating solar panel farm the size of 45 football fields, with a peak output capacity of 60 megawatts.

Rooftop solar brings the power of the sun to your home ​

Your home can also play a role in the overall growth of the solar industry in America. Adding panels to your roof is not about going off-grid. Instead, residential solar allows you to reduce or even eliminate your utility bill entirely while still maintaining a connection to the grid that you will leverage at night when the sun sets. If your utility supports net metering, you will receive credits for any excess solar power you send back to the grid. These credits offset what you owe every month. With federal incentives about to expire, now is the best time to add solar to your home’s energy mix and join the clean energy revolution. If you want to store the clean power you generate to increase your energy independence and enjoy blackout protection, you should look into stationary backup batteries.


Photo by Chris Leipelt on Unsplash